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From posters to polls

What it takes to win elections

Created date

July 24th, 2012

Party politics and dirty politics kicked in the minute George Washington decided not to seek a third term, says W. Ralph Eubanks, publishing director for the Library of Congress. Ever since then, campaign strategies have been more or less dictated by an army of experts. There are the message people, the policy people, the get out the vote foot soldiers, the fundraisers, the pollsters, and, in the modern era, television ad consultants and social media gurus. With varying degrees of proficiency, this evolving cast of characters professes to understand what voters want and promises to use their own special brand of knowledge to lead their candidate to victory. In the end, however, the only certainty in politics is that come election day, about half of the experts were right and about half of them weren t. As America readies itself for its 57th presidential election, two new books illustrate how, despite changing times, winning campaigns requires equal amounts of both art and science...and a bit of luck never hurts either.

Appealing to emotions

Before the Internet, television, or radio, opposing parties conveyed their distinct messages through handbills, broadsides, and posters. Outside of stump speeches, the poster was the only way candidates could appeal to many voters directly. Posters supplemented what people read in the newspapers and probably were distributed in areas that didn t have much in the way of journalism, says Eubanks. They were often simple and persuasive and appealed to the common man s emotions. A new book Presidential Campaign Posters From the Library of Congress(Quirk Books) beautifully illustrates the history of American campaigns through poster art. Filled with 100 ready-to-frame color posters, the book starts with Democrat Andrew Jackson s plainly engraved image underneath the slogan Protector & Defender of Beauty & Booty and ends with a 2008 John McCain poster aimed at Latino voters. In the book s preface, media analyst Brooke Gladstone says, What is perhaps most striking about this collection of posters from the Library of Congress our oldest federal cultural institution, and one that serves as America s memory is what it reveals about the unchanging nature of American politicking. In these posters we see the same posturing, the same accusations (of corruption, of moral turpitude) and insinuations (of suspicious religious beliefs, of hidden affiliations) hurled across party lines through the centuries, he adds. We see in black-and-white and color that the incivility that modern Americans decry as symptomatic of a sick political system has, in fact, been with us always. The majority of the book s images represent official campaign posters, but some of the more interesting pages contain parody posters such as those from the 1976 race. Republicans loved the Fordzie poster with President Gerald Ford depicted as the coolest and most popular television character of the time, The Fonz fromHappy Days. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats favored the J.C. Will Save America poster, showing a Christ-like Jimmy Carter in a white robe and sporting a halo.

Information arms race

Of course, posters are still used in political campaigns, but in the 21st century, advertising is what delivers a candidate s message and data is what drives campaigns. Political consulting is a $6 billion a year industry, and with each successive election, more and more of those dollars are being spent in the quest to understand and influence voters. In his forthcoming bookVictory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns(Crown), Sasha Issenberg profiles the maverick academics seeking more and more information about voters and explores how data analysis has come to dominate campaign strategies. Republican consultant Alex Gage describes the current political focus as an information arms race. After years of relying on the work of old-school political scientists, today s campaigns look to consumer market research for inspiration. The same techniques used to understand who buys a Ford and who buys a Chevy is being applied to the voting booth, and the findings are so detailed that campaign operatives can often target messages to appeal to individual voters. Unlike the marquee names that commandeer the biggest races, the men and women who derive the data and crunch the numbers are largely unknown to most Americans. But that doesn t mean they aren t appreciated. According to Victory Lab, Karl Rove was as proud of his propeller heads as Rick Perry was of his eggheads, while the Democrats champion the work of their geeks. Longtime Democratic strategist Hal Malchow characterizes the modern-day political consultant this way: Those who succeed will need the eyes of an artist, the words of a poet, and the elegant equations of a mathematician. Of all the professions in all parts of the universe, there is only one place where all these skills reside together.